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On November 8, 1926, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist and fierce antibourgeois, anti-Fascist journalist and deputy, was arrested by Benito Mussolini’s police and deported to the tiny island of Ustica. His sentence was twenty years. Until his release from incarceration on April 21, 1937, six days before his death, he was variously confined at Turi near Bari, at Formia, and at Milan, until his return to his native Sardinia. A small man physically, with a deformity that gave him the appearance of a humpbacked dwarf, he suffered from tuberculosis and arteriosclerosis. Despite these infirmities and under the eyes of his Fascist jailers, he wrote 219 letters (published in 1947) to his wife and a handful of other family members. Most important, he managed to produce roughly twenty-eight hundred pages of social analysis, philosophy, and political prophecy that constitute his Prison Notebooks, containing his singular commentaries and reflections. Gramsci’s covert writings were essential to his psychic survival: He had a fierce determination to be heard.

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The substance of the notebooks was not developed sequentially. Gramsci was a thinker working under immense pressure and stress. Consequently, portions of an essay would be written at one time; months or years later it would be amended and appended.

The notebooks consist of a sequence of essays—a series of reflections. They are Marxist, but Sardinian rather than German or Russian. Gramsci’s personal background was that of a high meridional, middle-class culture. Yet his was a bourgeois family that was thrown into desperate poverty. The suffering of the poor was not something he had to imagine; it had been an intimate part of his daily experience.

Substantively, Prison Notebooks falls into several related sections. One section deals with problems of historical materialism. It includes Gramsci’s introduction to the study of philosophy and historical materialism, some problems for the study of the philosophy of praxis, critical notes on a tentative popular manual of sociology, and an essay on Benedetto Croce, who had a profound influence on Gramsci, and historical materialism.

A second intellectually coherent section of the notebooks deals with the philosophy of Praxis (action as opposed to theory). In this essay, Gramsci discusses Antonio Labriola’s philosophical writings on the subject of praxis (which involved the influences of a number of Soviet and German Marxists) and discusses the intellectual roots of the concept of praxis. In Gramsci’s verbal shorthand, praxis could well be represented by the thought of G.W.F. Hegel, the great German philosopher, joined with the principal ideas of David Ricardo, the English classical economist. Gramsci’s point was that since Karl Marx had been a student of Hegel and, indirectly, of Ricardo, Marxist thought evolved in a fairly unified manner from the nineteenth century into his own day; that is, its intellectual roots evolved from main-line European culture. Thus, praxis, the philosophy of action, was a product of an ineluctable historical process. The final sections of this essay discuss Marx’s contributions.

Other sections of the notebooks deal with such subjects as historical sociology, politics, civilization, and culture. Each essay contains brief reflections, critiques, and conclusions—all related to examinations of various socialisms and their relationships, historical and intellectual, to Gramsci’s views on Marxism.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

In 1924, Antonio Gramsci was elected as a Communist deputy in the Italian Parliament. Despite enjoying parliamentary immunity, he was arrested on November 8, 1926, under orders of the Fascist head of state, Benito Mussolini. Convicted of...

(The entire section contains 2875 words.)

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